'Hunt' a Brilliant Dissection of Accusation and Groupthink

Directed by: Thomas Vinterberg; Runtime:115 minutes
Grade: A-

Thomas Vinterberg has found a way to turn a pre-school girl into something of a villain in The Hunt (Jagten), a morally and psychologically complex dramatic-thriller -- perhaps even a bit of a horror film -- centered on the crowd mentality of inquisitions based on unfalsifiable accusations. By design, the material here is tough to digest: it focuses on how a community reacts to damning charges of indecency towards children, centered on how the composure and sanity of a teacher in a small town crumbles as his new reputation takes shape around the exacerbating situation. Working off a straight-shooting script with a surprisingly balanced point of view, Vinterberg artfully communicates the film's sensitive messages in an uncompromising depiction of witch hunts and irreparable damage done to the accused, allowing appropriate responses to form around children's innocence and the quickly-dismantled trust in others.

After taking a job at a kindergarten within a tight-knit Danish community, divorcee Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) lives a relatively quiet life filled with normal activities: hunting and drinking with his friends, timidly approaching a new romance with his co-worker, Nadja (Alexandra Rapaport), walking his dog, and bickering with his stubborn wife about custody of their son. It's both surprising and not how quickly the situation goes south when Klara (Annika Wedderkopp), the imaginative young daughter of his best friend, Theo (Thomas Bo Larsen), and one of his closer pupils, unthinkingly accuses Lucas of revealing his genitals to her on the nursery's grounds, a reaction to her disappointment with how he took her affection. On the rushed, concerned steam of such charges with little to no proof, the town promptly begins to shun Lucas, turning most people against him. Everything -- his job, his romance, his custody discussions, his ability to do everyday things -- expectedly dismantles around Lucas, leaving him with few options in combating Klara's flippant and fraudulent claim.

To say that it's difficult to craft a even-handed portrayal of this topic would be an understatement, but Vinterberg has capably done so with The Hunt, earning sympathy for both accusers and accused as psychosomatic tension builds around Lucas. At first, the film focuses on his attitude and everyday activities as a means of establishing his nature as a person, almost in the way a character witness might depict him during a trial where his integrity is in question. Moments of tenderness and humor created by the inclusive community, as well as Lucas' dedication to his son and mindfulness at work, showcase how even strong appreciation of a person's amiable character can crumble under the weight of allegation and hysteria. Lucas' future problems might be foreseeable, but the authenticity in the actions and reactions of the community -- the modern equivalent of a witch hunt -- absorbs us into his powerless frustration, navigated by that grasp on his innocence.

Much of The Hunt explores Lucas' deteriorating emotional and mental state, captured in a brilliantly nuanced performance from Mads Mikkelsen. The actor's quiet intensity responds in exceptional ways to varied scenes of accusation, substituting overwrought knee-jerk reactions with cautious confusion and composed rage, gradually amplifying with his worsening conditions. That's partially because Vinterberg knows when to play the intensity card; with him, Mikkelsen expertly realizes the emotional progression of a reserved yet passionate man gradually pushed to the edge. He's surrounded by a range of fine performances to fill out the townsfolk ready to pull out their figurative torches and pitchforks, ably interacting with Mikkelsen's somber, complex performance. Most important of them, naturally, would be Annika Wedderkopp as the young accuser Klara, who nails the subtly haunting personality of a young girl who dismantles Lucas' life with a vague, bitter fib she almost stops caring about mid-sentence.

The Hunt leaves one wondering about what's ultimately going to happen to Lucas once the bureaucratic dust settles, whether the truth will find a way to the surface or whether an innocent man will go to jail due to a child's spite ... or worse. This gives weight to the suspense as calls for action intensify from the community, creating an concentrated, stable pace within the ominous atmosphere. Moments here made me feel more on-edge than many dedicated thrillers, blending his ostracization with the growing awareness that he's no longer safe in his own home, on the street, or in his local grocery store. Perhaps the most discomforting thing about it comes in the fact that the community's misgivings (not their actions) aren't exactly unjustified, given the lack of evidence either way and the reliance on trying to validate the young girl's honesty. Sooner or later, it confronts the audiences with the fact that they could be rooting "against" people merely concerned for the welfare of their kids, when the only things deserving of that attention are a momentary lapse in judgment and how Klara picked up on indecent thoughts.

Ultimately, the material here is about as alarming and intentionally-exasperating as one might expect: there are no easy answers or takeaways in the gray thematic area The Hunt creates, all the way down to how the film's haunting final shot reinforces exactly how long suspicion endures. There are messages here that the film could've forcefully emboldened -- about the fragility of reputation, the inflammation of the mob mentality, and the unreliability of testimonies -- but Vinterberg allows the story to express its purposes on neutral dramatic ground, where the situation itself coneys more than enough through Lucas' tribulations. It takes a lot of gumption to lay the material out in this fashion, and it makes this well-made and gut-churning realization of a (mostly) likely conundrum because of it, created by something as innocuous as a child's little white lie. It's a riveting piece of work that, all the way until its end, understands that Klara's slip-up will always have repercussions, regardless of Lucas' official guilt or innocence.

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